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Republic of Ireland's fee-free universities out to lure Northern Ireland students

By Liam Clarke

Northern Ireland students can claim free university places in the Republic where tuition fees were abolished in 1996.

The Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) offers special grants and loans to those studying across the border.

"We would be delighted to have more students from the North coming down to study here," said Lewis Purser, director of academic affairs at the Irish Universities Association (IAU). He confirmed that, under EU rules, no fees were payable.

All third-level students in the Republic are charged a €2,000 (£1,772) annual 'registration fee', but DEL meets that cost for students from north of the border.

A DEL spokesman said: "In terms of support for NI students at university in the Republic, DEL pays the €2,000 on the students' behalf. This arrangement is currently under review by DEL."

DEL also offers a "means-tested non-repayable bursary of £2,000 and a maximum loan of up to £4,840" to students crossing the border to study there.

Mr Purser said some Southern universities would be visiting selected schools in Northern Ireland to encourage applicants for 2012. He was anxious to quash the perception that the Irish system is rigged to favour the state's own Leaving Certificate examination, where students often study six or eight subjects.

"If anyone tells you we don't give adequate weight for A-levels they are talking rubbish," he said.

"You get 150 points for an A* and 135 for an A grade, but the highest that any student sitting an Irish Leaving Certificate can get is 100 for a single subject," he said.

The relative weight given to various examinations is fixed internationally and not in Ireland. In the case of the Leaving Certificate, points gained from a student's top six results are counted for university entry, in A-levels it is the top four. Others are ignored.

"To be guaranteed a place in a popular course like medicine in Trinity or UCD you would need four A*s at A-level," Mr Purser said. That would give you the maximum 600 points on the Irish scoring system, but arts degrees have lower entry requirements, often around 320-350 points.

"Computer science was available in University College Cork this year for 330 points, the equivalent of two Bs and a C at A-level, while law was 480, the equivalent to four Bs."

Students seeking Irish university places must submit applications to the Central Application Office, (CAO) the equivalent of Ucas, between November this year and February of next.

The Republic is also likely to prove an attractive alternative for English students facing annual fees of up to £9,000 starting in 2012. Here in Northern Ireland the Executive is hoping to peg fees at something over £3,000 a year, but the details are not finalised.

The CAO said that applications from UK students have been increasing gradually. In 2008 it was 2,000, this year it is 2,005.

CAO does not keep separate figures for Northern Ireland students but estimates more than half the UK applicants are from Northern Ireland. In 1995, the year before Irish fees were abolished, 3,125 Southern students studied in Northern Ireland.

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Student fees are due to go up to £9,000 a year in England.

Stormont plans to subsidise fees here to something between £3,000 and £4,000 while charging British students more. That may be illegal under EU regulations which also let Northern Ireland students study free in the Republic.

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